Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tacit Consent: A Review of "The Flat" by Arnon Goldfinger

Should you let sleeping dogs lie? If there is a family secret hiding in plain view in your grandmother's apartment in Tel Aviv, should you just let it be? Or should you follow the clues to wherever they may lead?

As I also had a grandmother who lived in Tel Aviv and died during the new millenium, it was interesting to me to compare the contents of the two apartments.

My grandmother was not a hoarder like Gerda Tuchler. In fact, she liked to throw things away. So there was no collection of gloves or cigars or shoes to discard. The only hoarder in the family was my grandfather, but he had died over thirty years before. He hoarded figurines, art and books. Especially books.

Even though my grandfather had had a considerable collection of books in German, my grandmother gave it away to a library years ago. My grandparents came from Poland, but they were both fluent in German. However, my grandmother was angry with the Germans, so she symbolically got rid of all the Germans books, even when she knew at the time that I was studying German and might like to have some of them. I did inherit the bulk of the remaining books, which were in a variety of languages, including Hebrew, English, French, Persian, Latin, Greek, Polish and Spanish. My grandfather was a philologist, after all, and he translated ancient Greek, Persian and Latin texts into Hebrew.

However, there was no Nazi propaganda among my grandmother's personal effects in her apartment in Tel Aviv, and that is where the stories of Gerda Tuchler and of Klara Katz are not at all the same. The Tuchler story in this respect is much more interesting.

Gerda and Kurt Tuchler
Photo Courtesy of IFC

The story is about a seeming collaboration between Zionist activisits and Nazis, who shared at least this small common goal: to get Jews out of Germany. To the Zionists, this was in order to found a Zionist state in Israel, where these Jews would be members of the ruling majority. For the Nazis, it was so that Germany could get rid of an ethnic minority. In one sense, these are completely different goals. But in another sense, there was a lot of commonality of interest, in that if many Jews left for Palestine, there would be fewer Jews left in Germany. Acting on this common interest, Kurt Tuchler, Arnon's grandfather, and Leopold von Mildenstein took their wives on a tour of Palestine, and von Mildenstein wrote about this sight seeing tour in the Nazi paper, the Angriff.

I have written about the historical context of this story here:

But this documentary is not about the historical context. It is deeply personal. And what Arnon Goldfinger uncovers is that even after the war, the Tuchlers and the von Mildenstein's continued their friendship, meeting and exchanging gifts, and ignoring the fact that Gerda Tuchler's mother was deported from Germany to meet her death at Theresienstadt, a Nazi run camp, while von Mildenstein continued to serve under Goebbels, as a propagandist.

Arnon Goldfinger relies on his mother, Hannah, the daughter of Kurt and Gerda Tuchler,  to translate documents for him, because she is fluent in German, while he is not, but he is astonished when none of this supposedly new information about her parents seems to phase her.

Arnon Goldfinger shows Edda von Mildenstein evidence that her father was a Nazi
Photo Credit: ZeroOne Film

They go to visit Edda Milz von Mildenstein, the Mildensteins' daughter, and she, too, seems very cooperative, but while denying that her father was a Nazi, she shows a remarkable lack of surprise when presented with evidence that he was one after all.

The spin that is put on these apathetic reactions to shocking new information about the past is that this is an example of "second generation repression." But I think the answer is really much simpler. Both Hannah Tuchler and Edda von Mildenstein already knew all of the story. It was not new information for them at all. Children hear parents talking. They learn about events as they unfold. Later, they only talk about those things that they think will be helpful to their own children. They do not volunteer messy information. But that does not mean they do not know.

Hannah and Edda  saw no benefit in airing all the embarrassing facts with Arnon. But when he insisted, they went along with it. They were gracious, but it was no shock to them, as they had lived with these open secrets all their lives.  They were just children then. What were they supposed to do about it?

I think it is interesting how similar the reactions of both daughters actually are. They may not have met before the documentary, but they shared a common past. And the collaborators were, after all, their parents. They were only innocent children at the time.

More and more as I review history, I see how people who are supposedly on opposite sides of crucial historical battles were actually collaborating with each other, because they shared common interests.  The British and the Americans were collaborating against the Baratarian privateers during the War of 1812. They were more interested in taxing citizens to pay for their fleets than they were in the rights of  the people to import and export goods across the ocean tax free. The legitimacy of their governments, in the eyes of both the British and the American career military, trumped any rights of citizens to free trade.

 The prisoners at Weihsien were collaborating with their Japanese captors, and they turned a blind eye when the Japanese executed Chinese farmers who had risked their lives to bring them eggs to eat. Later, it was the Japanese guards who sold prisoners contraband eggs at prices marked up to line their own pockets. But did the prisoners refuse to buy those eggs from people who had killed the farmers who sold them?

Today, citizens collaborate with their governments every day in stripping themselves and other citizens of their rights. And yet we get in trouble with our neighbors if we talk about it openly.

A breach of etiquette occurs every time someone mentions an atrocity. If I were to write: "And you, reading this right now, if you are an American who was of age in 1993: You didn't know that children were being killed  by the ATF at Mt. Carmel in your name? I don't believe you, because it was shown to the whole nation on TV.  The siege lasted for over a month. Why did you not rise up in arms and prevent this from happening? You didn't know, or you just didn't care?" -- People would think I was just being rude. Clearly most individuals are not responsible for the acts of their governments, even though we give lip service to the notion of  "democracy". But that whole "by the consent of the people" thing is a sham. If there were a social contract, and if we were tacitly giving our sanction to it by doing nothing, then all of us would be guilty right now every time a Federal agent killed an innocent citizen.

What's really interesting to me about this documentary by Arnon Goldfinger is how it deals with the etiquette of discussing past atrocities. There's a scene in the movie where Arnon is asking his mother how to bring up the Nazi issue. They both agree that using the word "Nazi" is really gauche. It's too stigmatizing.  So they decide to use other words to discuss the matter. In the end, Arnon asks Edda's husband: "What was Leopold's job?" "His job?"  "I mean, what did he do during the war?"  The answer: It was mostly paperwork.

Well, of course it was paperwork. Von Mildenstein was a propagandist, not an executioner.

Do the children of ATF agents also get asked that question sometimes. do you think? What was your father's job in Waco in 1993? How do Janet Reno's grandchildren, if she has any, regard her job as Attorney General? Was it mostly paperwork?

The real problem is not, in my opinion, that people under unjust regimes are repressed, in the psychological sense of not knowing what is going on, because they bury it deep in their subconscious. The real problem is that it's not polite to talk about it, and many believe that by looking on the rosy side of the picture, they are actually making life better for everybody else.

 Today, most of my friends on Facebook respond positively to pretty pictures of puppies, kittens, flowers and sunsets. They post memes that say that reality is what you make of  it --  not by fighting on the field of battle for your rights and the rights of others less powerful than yourself --  but by showing loving kindness toward every person you meet.

I believe that von Mildentsein and the Tuchlers were always kind to everyone they met.  They lived and died by that motto.


  1. Many people now a days want to focus on positive and uplifting things when they go online. There is enough negative things in the world, and some people just do not want to always think about politics. There are bad things countries do in our name, but not everyone wants to always obsess about these things. I do not blame people because honestly I have reached an end of wanting to always focus on this kind of stuff. It can be discouraging, and there are more positive things to do in life. Also, what if making what you can out of life is the best for yourself so you can be healthy and make a living? Focusing on the negative can depress people, and who is going to pay their bills if they feel bad. I am not sure how I feel about documentaries where people are confronted with their past and forced to share it with the world. I have not watched that documentary, but it sounds like the children were being polite and going along with what the documentary makers wanted to say. Perhaps they were more private people and just waned to live their own lives. I know my family thinks I post too much on social media, and some will not even have Facebook accounts. Maybe the Tuchlers and Midlesteins did not feel comfortable with being confronted with details about their family life they felt were embarrassing. I had one ancestor who did something I think is really horrible, in my opinion, and I know some family members who said they would never want me to talk about this.

    1. I agree with part of the sentiments you express, It really is too late to do anything about the Holocaust, and the children of collaborators are not at fault.

      At the same time, in 1993, when I was a grown up at Rice, I asked my friends to help me stop a massacre, and except for my brother, nobody came. I will never forget that, and I do not think it was okay that everybody went about their business and let those families die. A strong resistance at the right time -- even jeopardizing a job or college education to save those lives, would have made all the difference in the world. And who will stand up for me now if they come for my family?

    2. Now that I have new friends who were not there at the time, I cannot help wondering what they would do, if put to the test. And those who were grown ups, too, at that time, are people that I am afraid to ask: What did you do in 1993 just before Mt. Carmel burned?

      I get that it's not polite, but it makes me mistrust people not be able to know the answer.

    3. Well I was fourteen when this happened, but I thought it was not handled right. My history teacher also felt that way, but he was really the only person that talked with us about it at the time. However, I really would not have got involved. I do not even know why there was a need for a stand off with some group that wanted to live their own lifestyle, that part was always confusing to me.

    4. Hi,Julia. I was not questioning you on that personally. I know you were too young to do anything about it then, and probably also too far away.

      But for those who were close by and adults, if only enough of us had shown up, the authorities might have been deterred by our very numbers peacefully. The only reason bullies get away with what they do is that no one stands up to them. They feel safe, knowing that.

      This is an ongoing problem that applies to all people, and that is why what happened in Nazi Germany is instructive to us today. It really isn't okay not to get involved when it is happening on our watch and in our neck of the woods.